Prologue

Evening, six years before

The teenaged girl's chest rose and fell with her audible, still labored breaths as she struggled to keep herself from falling into hyperventilation. Her stringy limbs still shook with exhaustion, her meager muscles twitching with continued pain and from nearly three full days without sleep. Her long, straggly hair, dirty blonde naturally, but now much darker with grease and sweat, lay plastered against her neck and cheeks, and she blinked with occasional forcefulness, opening her foggy eyes wide in an effort to stay awake. She knew better than to give in to the desires of the flesh, especially now, and besides that, Papa was watching. Even for the brief moments that his back was turned, she knew he would turn towards her soon enough to see even a small flicker of weakened will, and if he didn't, Mama would.

The girl's back stung from the combination of her own sweat and blood, sticking her to the roughened sheets, and the continual pressure of lying on her back against wounds not yet fully healed or even beginning to scab over. She had felt the pain of her father's crudely carved wooden cane against her back almost weekly until the last week of carrying the spawn of her flesh, when her father had relented in his continual efforts of discipline. Spare the rod and spoil the child, it had been a wisdom that had not been neglected against her, and she hoped that her father's judicious application of it would indeed spare her of the worst of the possible fates of her future, given the seriousness of her misdeeds.

She had feared many things that could come about as a result of her transgression, knew she deserved all of them. Disfigurement, miscarriage, illness, even death, all would be just inflictions upon herself, and yet she waited now, uncertain still of the outcome of judgment upon herself and of the child from her loins. She had not yet even dared to glance for more than a moment at the infant, had not yet even asked her mother whether the child was male, female, or so hideously deformed that its gender could not be determined. Could it be that the sins of the father would be inflicted upon the child, the nature of mankind cursing it even as it drew its first breaths?

She could hear the child's thin cries, as though to reproach her, condemn her, although possibly from hunger or cold as well. Although the child's cries had been carrying on since its entrance into the world several minutes before, none of the three figures in the room so much as looked at it, and no one moved to lift it up from its hasty bed of blankets made in the room's corner, on the hardwood floor. Its mother watched as her father, a tall, stern faced man with unevenly cut graying hair and a harshly set expression paced the room, muscled arms clasped behind his back as he walked. To the girl's right, at a distance too remote to be able to reach out and touch, a woman with a face so heavily lined and an expression so dour that she appeared much older than her forty-eight years stood motionless, her eyes hard, head averted from looking in the direction of the girl in the bed or the child wailing on the floor.

Although the older woman had assisted as was necessary with the birth, she had not bathed the infant, after its umbilical cord had been cut, nor had she handled it, other than to set it in the blankets on the floor. She had not spoken to her daughter more than was necessary during her labor; indeed, she had not spoken to her more than was necessary for the entirety of the girl's pregnancy. She watched her husband pace in silence, waiting without any noticeable impatience for his next action.

The boys were not present, of course. It wouldn't have been fitting, especially with the conditions behind the child's conception, especially in the case of the child's father, to be present during the woman's delivery. Even Papa was taking a risk at displeasuring Him in being present in the room so soon after, but the girl knew better than to question his decision. As she waited for him to speak, her breathing gradually beginning to slow, the minutes ticked by, the child's crying seeming to grow more urgent, and at last the girl spoke, despite her knowledge that it was not her place.

"Mama…Papa…please. Please, what must we do now?"

If the older man and woman heard her, they did not acknowledge it. The man continued to pace, heavy boots scuffing with each step on the dusty floor, and the woman simply stood, immovable and unemotional in her silent stance. The girl spoke again, her voice carrying a note of desperation as she tried again to gain their acknowledgment.

"Papa-"

"Silence, Mitzi!"

The man's tone was harshly authoritative, yet he did not so much as glance towards his daughter, nor did he pause his loud yet rhythmic steps around the room's small interior. The girl swallowed, her eyes darting towards the woman, who inclined her head in a firm nod, her voice nearly as hard as her husband's as she too spoke.

"You heard your father, girl. You are not suffered to speak again in this home until you are told to do so."

The girl- Mitzi- did not dare contradict. She fell again into silence, trying with increasing difficulty to keep her eyes open and alert to her parents' truculence. When her father's footsteps finally slowed to a stop, he tilted his head back, focusing on what appeared to be a spot on the ceiling. He tilted his head slightly, seeming to be listening, and then his eyes closed, his head coming forward into a bow of sorts. The woman watched him, her cracked lips parted, intent on his every move, and when he looked back up, he was looking at her, his head fully turned away from his daughter.

"Call the boys in here, Arlene," he said to his wife.

She nodded, beginning to shuffle towards the door without a question. "Yes, Ezra."

Furrowing her brow with bemusement at this directive, Mitzi licked her lips, taking in a sharp, slightly frightened breath before daring to speak again.

"But Papa, I just…the baby….surely it isn't right, not with Micah too-"

Ezra turned towards her with more speed than would have seemed possible with a man of his size, his expression dark and nearly menacing as he took one step towards her bed, his hand moving automatically to the knotted belt around his waist.

"You have been ordered to be silent! Do you refuse even now to honor your mother and your father, to submit to the wisdom of your elders, girl? Do you require further teaching of discipline, further instruction in the ways of righteousness?"

He kept his hand pointedly on his belt as he spoke, dark eyes boring into Mitzi's. Mitzi flinched, her lips pressing tightly together as she shook her head and lowered her eyes. Ezra eyed her for a few more moments, shaking his head, and Arlene shot a look of disgust back at her before she disappeared out the doorway, intent on carrying out her husband's command.

The infant was still crying, though more weakly in sound, as she returned with three young men trailing after her, shoulders stooped, heads bowed, dirty hats clutched in their fists as they entered the small room. Each young man was smaller than Ezra in stature but well muscled in a scrawny, rangy manner, resembling each other in coloring and in the narrow features of their face. The last and youngest in appearance so closely resembled Mitzi that with the exception of the length of their hair and the swell of Mitzi's breasts, they could have been mistaken for each other at a distance. The men stood in an awkward, uneven line across from Ezra, deliberately averting their gazes from both Mitzi in the bed and the baby on the floor; when the youngest made the mistake of shifting his eyes towards the bed, his mother's hand flew forward, clouting him across the face so that his head immediately bowed to the ground and blood dripped from his nose. They maintained their silence as they waited for their father's words to them.

"The Lord has spoken," Ezra stated finally, his voice heavy and intent. "He has spoken, and He is merciful in his judgment. He will not condemn us for the sinful actions that have taken place within our home and our hearts."

Mitzi's shoulders slumped, and she sagged back against the headboard of the bed, a whoosh of breath escaping her as her lips began to turn up into a smile. Micah's eyes seemed to brighten with hope, but the young man beside him simply shifted his weight, the third young man clinching his jaw, his mouth twisting with distaste. Arlene showed no expression, simply waiting for her husband to continue.

"We will receive atonement for our sins, as we always have," Ezra went on, his eyes shifting with meaning from each of the others, one by one. "But the sacrifice, as always, is great, and will demand much from us, as it should be. With the severity of the sins committed, the sacrifice now from us will be greater still. Nevertheless, in return for our obedience and our continued reverence to the Lord, more will be given to us than any of us deserve."

Arlene's head inclined in a short nod, and the young men two gave nonverbal agreement to their father's words. Mitzi alone showed sorrow at this declaration, tears beginning to seep out the corner of her eyes. She sucked in her breath, seeming almost to choke on the words she asked her father.

"The…the baby? Is He asking for the child?"

Ezra's gaze was not on her, but the child as he responded. He seemed reluctant to give her his answer, as though he wished that he could speak other words instead.

"No. The child too is to receive atonement, in spite of its sinful origins."

Mitzi's tears came harder then, but she was weeping with relief and joy rather than with grief and fear. "Thanks be to God. We are undeserving of this mercy."

"The child is to be named Thomasina, for Thomas, the twin, and also the doubting disciple," Ezra concluded, his voice hardening as he continued to stare intently at the whining child on the floor. "Let her Christian name be a reminder to you both of the seriousness of your transgression."

He did not ask for Mitzi to respond, nor for Micah, the twin he had addressed, and neither attempted to. They simply nodded slightly, accepting this, even as they accepted the news for the first time that the child who had been born was a daughter. Ezra's final words were addressed not only to them, but to the entire family, and he named them each, one by one, from his wife down to his youngest, the twins who were the cause of the judgment being rendered.

"Arlene. Silas. Judah. Micah. Mary Elizabeth," he said solemnly, for Mary Elizabeth was Mitzi's full name, used only in the most serious of moments. "We are now to go forward with focus in the promise of God's mercy. We are to give Him what he demands of us, for it is His will and his due."

He gave no further clarification, but then, none was needed. Each of them knew precisely what was now expected of them, and how their individual roles worked to do what was required. One by one, they exited the room, with Ezra Coles, as the head of the household, leading the way, as the Lord required of him and all fathers. Arlene Coles followed, with Silas, Judah, and Micah following, one at a time, without further words. Only Mitzi was left. Even alone, she didn't get out of bed to pick up the still whimpering child. She didn't speak to it, or even look at it, not without instruction from her father to do so.

Thomasina Coles was not a child as any other child. She was the weight of Mitzi's sin, and Mitzi dared not further expose herself to it without further command.